Petrels – night and day
A Sound Approach guide by Magnus Robb, Killian Mullarney and the Sound Approach

I could not hide my pleasure when ‘The Sound Approach to Birding’ was published two years ago – it was my bird book of the year by miles. So when I heard the first mutterings about the impending publication of this book, I was certainly excited, and now here it is!

I have taken a little while to review it, not for any real reason other than I simply wanted to take my time, enjoy all of the tracks, read and re-read the text, and absorb some of the many implications it has for the identification, naming (!) and taxonomy of ‘petrels’. Make no mistake, this is a vitally influential book and will affect the way we see the species it treats; there are also implications for many other petrel species not treated within it – and approaches to their taxonomy.

Those species it does treat are the following:-
The ‘gadfly petrels’ - Zinos’, Fea’s and Desertas Petrels
Bulwer’s Petrel
Canonectris shearwaters – Cory’s, Scopoli’s and Cape Verde Shearwaters
Little Shearwaters – Barolo’s and Boyd’s Shearwaters
Manx Shearwater
Mediterranean Shearwaters – Balearic and Yelkouan Shearwaters
Northern Fulmar
White-faced Strom Petrel
European Storm Petrels – British and Mediterranean Storm Petrels
Leach’s Storm Petrel (Wilson’s discussed on plate)
Band-rumped Storm Petrels – Grant’s, Monteiro’s, Madeiran and Cape Verde Storm Petrels
Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel

Many of the names above may not be familiar to some, as they reflect the taxonomic implications that the book (in part) discusses, but it clarifies the situation well and is worth getting for this reason alone. I am not sure I like the lack of hyphen in the word ‘storm-petrel’ – if there is a ‘petrel’ then these should be surely ‘storm-petrels’. Anyway, this is by the way, and nothing more than semantics, so let’s get onto the book.

The main bulk of the text is written by Magnus Robb, and is partly a personal journey through the circumstances surrounding the recording of the birds, and partly a discussion of the various sounds recorded. I found that I liked his style very much and was greatly envious of many of the circumstances in which he found himself, but also of his musicians ear, helpful when picking out the subtleties of some of the variation in calls, etc.. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some of the places, and many of my own memories and reflections were stirred. The following two extracts give a good taste of some of the prose Robb uses to express his enthusiasm for the subject:-

‘Bulwer’s Petrels Bulweria bulwerii are entirely silent in flight, and the only thing you might hear as they fly in from the sea is a faint whispoer of their wings. Against the roar of the surf on the rocks, they can go easily unnoticed, until one crashes against your limbs, head or clothing.’

‘Imagine the thrill of being alone at dusk on a tiny islet, certain that you are about to be blown way in a blizzard of White-face Storm Petrels Pelagodroma marina. Sitting watching the sun go down over the north coast of the Cape Verdean island of Boavista …..I could hardly wait for the night to begin.’

Once the scene has been set, the chapters move on to a discussion of the recordings. When listening to them it is best, as Robb suggests, to put on a pair of good headphones, block out all of the surrounding noise, and close your eyes. Take in the noise of the sea or the pulsing of the wings, then the haunting calls of the birds as they make contact, sometimes emerging out of the night sky. They are wonderful recordings, crystal clear, and full of movement. However, they are more then mere evocations and all link up to a discussion in the text with sonograms that go with them – the sonograms are annotated, helping to understand the various layers involved and sometimes the subleties of how to listen to them.

Take, for example, the first chapter on Fea’s, Zino’s and Desertas Petrels: we have four recordings of the first two and three of the last. Nearly all of the recordings have sonograms and text describing the various features, and in the first paragraph on the Desertas we are introduced to the idea that Desertas Petrels should be treated as separate from Fea’s for various reasons (timing of breeding, biometrics, probably DNA, and ‘differences in their sounds suggest that Desertas may actually be the most divergent member of the group’). Like the sounds themselves, this book has many layers, and I had to read this again, with my mind inevitably raced to the question, so if this is taken on board what are being seen of the coasts of Britain?

When I listened to the recordings, I can hear that Fea’s and Zino’s are (as I wrote in my notes) alike but different; they clearly have the same dog-like howling or baby-crying elements, but were subtle in their variance. Robb helped me to understand their noises, on a more sophisticated level, though I couldn’t help but put my own more simplistic interpretations to many noises: for example, Bulwer’s Petrel sounds like a dog barking in a cardboard box; Cory’s Shearwater calls like in a Punch and Judy show – aah, I thought, that’s the way to do it!

Breaking the text and sonograms are some amazing photographs by various photographers, and excellent plates by Killian Mullarney. The photos are either of the magnificent landscapes in which these incredible creatures choose to breed, or largely flight portraits of them at sea. These portraits go undiscussed, though amongst the plates, there are a few informative pointers to the field identification of the various species – there are exceptions such as the first tentative steps towards separating characters of Mediterranean and British Storm Petrels. Being someone that works visually, I might have liked more, however, as I keep remindind myself this a Sound Approach guide so the emphasis is bound to be on the voice - perhaps a littler bit more on field ID might have helped.

This book has great depth, and yet is very enjoyable to read and to use. In more ways than one, this is a ground-breaking book, and I have not even mentioned the four-way split of what we used to call Madeiran Storm-petrel - you will simply have to get the book and read it all for yourself. There are many questions I will now have to answer: what were those storm-petrels I saw off the coast of the Algarve four years ago? Surely, it was Madeiran Storm-petrel I saw off Madeira with Luis Dias in 2007?

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it is fabulous in every respect! Below are some links to The Sound Approach website, through which you can order the book.

The Sound Approach homepage

Text samples

Sound examples

Brian Small
August 2008